If you ever get the chance to sift through Max Nicholson’s archive (which, I’ll grant you, seems a little unlikely), it’s something quite astounding.

Throughout his long life, which spanned pretty much the entire 20th century, ornithologist, author and administrator Nicholson had a hand in organising or leading dozens of environmental initiatives and organizations, several of which sit right up there at the forefront of the modern conservation movement. When it came to organisation and leadership, Nicholson was quite simply second to none: he was instrumental in setting up the Oxford Bird Census in 1927 (which provided the foundation for the world-famous Edward Grey Institute of Field Ornithology); he established the British Trust for Ornithology in 1932; he drafted the constitution for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in 1948; he kick-started The Nature Conservancy in Britain the following year; he helped found the International Institute for Environment and Development in 1971; he was instrumental in the instigation of the Trust for Urban Ecology in 1976; he was President of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in the 1980s; and he was Chairman of Earthwatch (Europe) at around the same time.

But what drew me to his archive – housed at the Linnean Society of London – was his absolutely crucial role in founding the World Wildlife Fund in 1961. The charity became a legal entity on 11 September 1961 so technically has already had its 50th anniversary, but the 10th anniversary of the Twin Towers atrocity meant WWF had to let this date come and go without celebration. Today – 28 September – offers an alternative, marking exactly 50 years since a press conference at the Royal Society of Arts in London saw the official launch of WWF-UK. From Nicholson’s papers, so neatly and completely boxed up for posterity (as you might expect of someone who studied history at Oxford University) it is possible to piece together the sequence of events that day.

There is a rather wonderful document, which Nicholson knocked off on 1 April 1961 in a grand old farmhouse in the charming folds of the Cotswold countryside, shut off from the relentless pace of life as Director General of Britain’s Nature Conservancy. In “HOW TO SAVE THE WORLD’S WILD LIFE”, Nicholson penned a rhetorical masterpiece to focus minds on the “desperate” situation facing “mankind’s natural heritage.” It would result, within the space of just six months, in the World Wildlife Fund, now the world’s largest non-governmental conservation charity with over five million members worldwide.

Here’s an extract to illustrate his style:

Existing organisations add up to something rather like a car with a half-pint fuel tank replenished by an occasional cupful. What is needed is not a new organisation to duplicate and compete with the work of existing bodies but a new co-operative international project to make their efforts effective by providing them with adequate resources – a new fuel tank with a petrol pump to fill and refill it.

Nicholson chaired nine preparatory meetings at the offices of the Nature Conservancy at 20 Belgrave Square (now, it appears, home of the Brunei Darussalam High Commission). One of the earliest key outcomes was a document now known as the Morges Manifesto, a statement of intent signed by those involved in Switzerland on 29 April 1961. With this year’s Royal Wedding, WWF quite rightly decided not to mark this occasion.

Then, on the sixth of the preparatory meetings (on 6 July), it was agreed that the symbol for the new charity should be a panda and that there was to be a press conference on 28 September at the Royal Society of Arts to launch the British wing of the charity.

From a letter Nicholson sent to IUCN’s secretary general Gerald Watterson in late August, it’s clear that the plans for the event were at an advanced stage, with some 480 press invitations already dispatched. Nicholson then circulated the “proposed arrangements and programme” for the meeting “to all concerned”. With ten carefully bulleted points, it has something of military zip to it.

Point six indicates that two enlargements of the panda logo were to be on display, one just inside the entrance and the other “on the half landing of the staircase”. Then point seven, which I rather like, reads:

A larger version of the Panda symbol will be displayed behind the platform. This should pose the question “why a Panda at a meeting about African wildlife”? At the right moment this will enable the Chairman to make the appropriate remark about the problem under discussion being a world wide one.

And a couple of days before the day, the charity’s public relations guru Ian MacPhail circulated a letter to key members, giving a blow-by-blow outline of proceedings.

The first part of the meeting will be a report by Sir Julian Huxley on the recent African Wildlife Conference at Arusha. Mr Peter Scott will talk about the critical situation facing the wildlife of the world. Professor J.G. Baer, the eminent Swiss zoologist, who is the first President of the WORLD WILDLIFE FUND will describe the aims and objects of this new international organization. Lord Willingdon will present the WORLD WILDLIFE CHARTER – an important document signed by the world’s leading conservationists which will eventually go before the United Nations Assembly. Lord Hurcomb will be in the Chair.

Along with his letter, he sent a copy of the appeal booklet entitled “Save the World’s Wildlife”. There was also a fascinating handout showing off Peter Scott’s panda logo. Not only does it spell the genus name of the giant panda incorrectly (Ailarpoda instead of Ailuropoda), but it also claims that the panda was chosen as the Fund’s symbol “because it is one of the best-known and best-loved rare animals in the world, and because it owes its survival to the sort of careful conservation which all wild creatures deserve.” This claim looks like pure-and-simple spin, because in 1961 the first dedicated panda reserve was still a couple of years away and the idea of panda conservation had yet to be invented.

The following day, Nicholson dictated a letter to the President of the German Bundestag Eugen Gerstenmaier (who was to be influential in setting up WWF in Germany) in which he described the previous day’s event: “We have just gone over the top with the World Wildlife Fund Appeal and the publicity has been excellent.”

I’ve been thinking about this because I’ve been invited to the RSA this evening to mark the 50th anniversary of this event. Unlike the original, this one is a closed meeting, with dinner, that will be attended by some very senior WWF folks, including David Nussbaum (CEO of WWF-UK), Morné Du Plessis (CEO of WWF South Africa (not the rugby player)), Carter Roberts (President and CEO of WWF US) and Jim Leape (Director General of WWF International). The main purpose of the meeting, according to WWF’s press team, is “to discuss the challenges of the next 50 years”.

Should be interesting.

If you’d like to read more on the origins of WWF, you should read my book or, for a more scholarly version, Saving The World’s Wildlife by Swiss historian Alexis Schwarzenbach.

WWF at 50
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